Coaching guarantees you’ll age quickly

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Anyone who watched Bill Belichick in the immediate aftermath of his team’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts should be able to understand why the average career of an NFL coach barely exceeds the life span of a field mouse.

Here’s a guy who won three Super Bowls in a span of four years, and is touted by some as one of the greatest coaches ever. A guy who took a team that wasn’t supposed to be all that good this year and brought it to within a few minutes of yet another Super Bowl.

And here he was, seemingly ready to throw up on his sweat shirt as he answered questions in a barely audible monotone.

Prisoners going to their execution have looked better.

Hopefully, Mike Tomlin was busy making sure all the zeros were filled in properly on his new $10 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers and wasn’t watching. No reason to sour Tomlin on his new career path when he’s just getting started.

Likewise, it’s probably a good thing that Bill Parcells announced his retirement in a statement and wasn’t around Monday to talk about why he was giving up more than $5 million to walk away from the final year of his contract with the Dallas Cowboys.

No need for Tomlin to hear war stories about meddling owners and out of control players. Not when at the tender age of 34 he has just been given the keys to one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.

“I’m still coming to grips with what that means,” Tomlin said.

What it means is that Tomlin will be target No. 1 on the firing line in Pittsburgh, no longer able to enjoy the relative anonymity of being an assistant coach like he was most recently with the Minnesota Vikings.

What it means is that, like 31 fellow head coaches, football will be his life 16 hours a day every day, and that every decision he makes will be second guessed by Steeler faithful who understand he’s inheriting a loaded team.

What it means is that he will be expected to win – and win often.

“The only yardstick for success our society has is being a champion,” John Madden once said. “No one remembers anything else.”

Madden, ironically, is remembered more these days for announcing games, not coaching them. But he won one Super Bowl three decades ago as coach of the Oakland Raiders and never had a losing season before deciding the ulcers weren’t worth chasing another ring.

Parcells hung on a lot longer than most coaches, making it to the age of 65 before finally calling it a career. He won two Super Bowls with the Giants, got to another with the Patriots, but even the prospect of reaching a fourth with the Cowboys wasn’t enough to keep him around.

The reasons behind his departure weren’t spelled out, but it’s easy enough to read the tea leaves and figure it out ourselves. Massaging the egos of both owner Jerry Jones and Terrell Owens might be too much to ask of any coach.

The marriage between Jones and Parcells began fraying when Jones insisted on signing the petulant wide receiver last year, introducing him at a press conference Parcells didn’t attend. Parcells rarely referred to Owens by name, calling him “the player,” and the going theory was that one would be back and not the other.

Jones said he wanted Parcells to coach another year, but the fact is Tuna never really got it done in Dallas. In four years he was a mediocre 34-32, the Cowboys lost both playoff games he coached, and the team was maddeningly inconsistent.

The last loss had to hurt the most, if anything for just the way it happened. Parcells knew that at his age there wouldn’t be that many more opportunities, and to lose a playoff game on a fumbled snap by Tony Romo had to make him wonder whether risking his emotional – and physical – health was worth it.

“It’s his life and if it was making him so unhappy he needs to step down. And obviously that was the case,” said linebacker Greg Ellis, Dallas’ defensive captain. “He just felt it was time for him to move on and that’s what he did.”

Unlike most coaches, Parcells was able to do it somewhat on his own terms, his dignity still intact. And, unlike his previous two retirements, this time he’s probably done for good after 19 grueling seasons on the sidelines.

It’s probably for the best because the NFL coaching fraternity is trending younger and younger these days. The word had barely gotten out about Tomlin’s hiring when the Raiders said they had hired the youngest coach of the modern era – 31-year-old Lane Kiffin.

Like Tomlin, Kiffin shouldn’t have any problem relating to his players. He’s younger than nine of them on the active roster at the end of the season.

That won’t last long, though. Kiffin and Tomlin should both age quickly.

Being a head coach in the NFL almost guarantees that.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

AP-ES-01-23-07 1639EST

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